ENGLEWOOD – A few months ago, Carlos Henderson was happily terrorizing defenses in Conference USA. He scored 23 touchdowns in 2016, fourth highest in the nation. He scored as a receiver, a runner and a returner for Louisiana Tech.
He had mastered college football. Life was fun. Life was easy. A discouraging word was seldom heard.
Then he took the giant step to the Denver Broncos and the NFL.
Henderson already has heard whispers about his talents. He struggled in early practices, inspiring questions about his worthiness as a third-round pick.
He heard the whispers and just kept working. In the past few days, Henderson has rebounded, making tough catches and turning down the volume on the criticism.
Could he claim the Broncos No. 3 receiver spot behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders?
He’s not going there. Not yet, anyway.
“I got to continue to work hard,” Henderson said in his New Orleans drawl. “It’s up to the coaches. All I got to do is work hard and get better every day. I’m trying to be consistent, trying to help my team any way I can.”
There are many ways he might help. Henderson played running back in high school and expected to play running back at Louisiana Tech.
Coaches had other ideas. They moved him to receiver, and he soon became one of the nation’s most elusive pass catchers. He’s a master at collecting yards after the catch. In 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, he caused 48 missed tackles, the highest in the NCAA. He scored three touchdowns on returns at Louisiana Tech.
Brandon Stokley caught passes from Peyton Manning in downtown Indianapolis and on the edge of downtown Denver. Stokley is now a Denver radio host who attends most Bronco practices.
In August 1999, Stokley was in a place remarkably similar to where Henderson is today. Stokley, a Ravens fourth-round pick from Southwestern Louisiana, remembers the pressure and confusion of his first camp.
Southwestern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech are bitter football rivals. Stokley, who retired in 2013, has chosen to look past his possible differences with Henderson.
“We’re really not supposed to like each other,” Stokley said, “but I do like him because he’s from Louisiana.”
Stokley has watched Henderson closely. He sees a player who is understandably nervous, but he also sees a diligent worker who is fearless in the frightening realm in the center of the field. Henderson, Stokley said, has the courage required to face, and survive, NFL violence.
“It’s hard to go out there and show what you have and who you are,” Stokley said. “That’s why it’s tough for rookies to make an impact in the NFL. I’m pulling for him because he’s a dynamic player and there’s a need for that this year.”
Henderson has been happy to hear a drawling voice from Louisiana as he begins his quest to earn a living in football.
“I talk to Mr. Stokley,” Henderson said. “He just gave me a little advice. Be consistent. Be in right spot at all times.”
And don’t worry too much about criticism.